TIME movies

Sony Will Amend Seth Rogen’s The Interview After North Korean Threats

Little Kim doesn't see the funny side

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Executives at Japanese-owned Sony Pictures appear to have yielded in the face of increasing anger from North Korea over an upcoming comedy flick, The Interview, writes the Hollywood Reporter.

The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, and much to Pyongyang’s dismay its plot follows two American broadcast journalists who are recruited as CIA agents and ordered to assassinate the communist state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un after they score an interview with him.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio plans to digitally alter thousands of buttons worn by extras so that they no longer depict the actual buttons worn by the North Korean military to honor Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il. Sony is also considering cutting a scene where Kim Jong Un’s face is “melted off graphically in slow motion.”

In June, North Korean authorities labeled the film a “wanton act of terror” and threatened a “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released. The Interview was originally set to hit the big screen in October; however, because of the controversy, its release date has been knocked back to December.

[THR]

TIME South Korea

Pope Francis Arrives in South Korea With a Message for All of Asia

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - DAY 1
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pool—Getty Images

The Vatican says that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on Earth

Making the first trip to Asia by a Pontiff in 15 years, Pope Francis landed in South Korea on Aug. 14, beginning a five-day visit to one of Roman Catholicism’s few regional strongholds.

The Argentine, who made history as the first Latin American Pontiff, took the opportunity to hail the populous continent, where Catholic fervor is burgeoning in contrast to dwindling congregations in Europe. “As I begin my trip, I ask you to join me in praying for Korea and for all of Asia,” tweeted Pope Francis, whose visit will coincide with a large gathering of young Asian Catholics. In January 2015, he will return to Asia, with stops in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

While in South Korea, the Pontiff will pray for peace for a divided Korean peninsula. On Thursday morning, less than an hour before Pope Francis landed in Seoul — where he was greeted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, North Korean defectors and families of those who perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April — North Korea fired three short-range rockets into the sea. Two more followed in the afternoon.

Much like in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain years, Catholic churches served as safe havens for South Korean human-rights defenders standing up to the dictatorships that held sway from the 1960s to the late 1980s. But the roots of Catholicism in Korea go back further than that. During his five-day visit, Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs, including those who were persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries by Confucian-bound dynastic rulers wary of foreign faiths. Around 10,000 Koreans are believed to have been killed for their faith.

Asia currently boasts the fewest number of Catholics of any region of the world, with only around 3% of Asians identifying as Catholics, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. But the Vatican claims that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on earth, outstripping even Africa. The greatest numbers live in the Philippines, with roughly 80 million Catholics, or around 85% of the national population. India counts about 20 million believers, and the faith is believed to be growing in Vietnam. Yet tensions between Catholic communities and adherents to majority faiths like Islam have erupted in South Asia and Southeast Asia, sometimes violently.

In South Korea, the Catholic congregation has grown to about 5.4 million, or roughly 10% of the population. President Park was baptized at a Catholic church although her official biography says she holds no religious affiliation. Protestantism remains a more popular religion, although the primacy of evangelical mega-churches appears to have waned from an apex in the mid-90s. (Other South Koreans are Buddhists.)

In China, the ruling Communist Party maintains an official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that has to answer in part to atheist apparatchiks. The Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, since China refuses to recognize the Vatican’s sway over what have been termed “underground churches” or those professing loyalty to Rome. Nevertheless, a religious revival in recent years has seen the growth of many faiths, including underground Catholic worship as well as belief in the state-sanctioned church.

In a rare hopeful sign, Pope Francis’ plane was allowed to travel through Chinese air space on its way to South Korea, something his predecessors’ jets had not been able to do. Following papal tradition, Pope Francis issued a radio message to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane passed over the People’s Republic. “Upon entering Chinese airspace,” the Pope said, “I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Still, some Chinese Catholics who planned to join the Asian Youth Day in South Korea were dissuaded by Chinese authorities. On the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, foreign missionaries and charities (both Catholic and Protestant) have been facing scrutiny in recent weeks for what is officially illegal activity.

Meanwhile, on Monday, in Seoul, Pope Francis plans to hold a special mass praying for peace and reconciliation among the two Koreas. The same day, joint military exercises involving the U.S. and ally South Korea are slated to begin. North Korea will surely not be pleased.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Sends American Missionary Back to Labor Camp

Kenneth Bae
American missionary Kenneth Bae, second from right, arrives to speak to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang on Jan. 20, 2014. Kim Kwang Hyon — AP

The State Department has asked that the ailing Kenneth Bae be released on humanitarian grounds

American officials confirmed this week that North Korean authorities sent Kenneth Bae back to a labor camp in late July to continue serving his 15-year sentence, after he was discharged from the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital.

The American missionary has been in Pyongyang’s custody for two years, after he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” while leading a tour in the city of Rason. The U.S. State Department has repeated its demand that the physically ailing Bae be released immediately.

“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” read an email by State Department officials that was sent to the Voice of America’s Korean news service.

Swedish officials, who act as diplomatic interlocutors for the U.S. in North Korea, visited the American earlier this week at the unspecified camp — the 12th such meeting between Bae and Sweden’s diplomatic corps since he was arrested. Representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were unable to comment on the matter when contacted by TIME on Thursday.

Human rights groups slammed the North Korean leadership for continuing to use harsh methods to punish the American.

“Bae, like millions of North Koreans before him, faces injury or death by a regime that systematically employs forced labor to punish anyone that it accuses of undermining the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME.

Bae’s arrest appears to be part of a wider campaign aimed at curtailing any form of proselytizing in North Korea, where officials view the act as a challenge to the ruling Kim dynasty.

Earlier this summer, two American tourists were imprisoned for allegedly performing acts that undermined the state. One of the men, Jeffrey Fowle, is suspected of leaving behind a Bible at a nightclub in Chongjin, according to the Associated Press.

In May, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is the only American to have met Kim Jong Un, tapped the nation’s “Supreme Leader” to release Bae as a personal favor.

“I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” tweeted Rodman.

Kim has yet to be moved, it appears.

TIME South Korea

South Korean Protestants Rally Against Pope Francis’ Visit

South Korea Pope
Workers set a platform as they prepare for a special Korean reconciliation mass by Pope Francis at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on Aug. 12, 2014 Ahn Young-joon—AP

Not everyone is happy about the Pontiff's trip

Around 10,000 South Korean Protestants gathered at a convention center near Seoul on Tuesday to protest Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the country.

The demonstration, organized by fundamentalist Protestants who view Catholicism as blasphemous, underscores tension among some denominations in South Korea, where nearly 30% of the population is Christian.

Participants in Tuesday’s protests, the Wall Street Journal reports, sought to undermine recent efforts by moderate Protestant leaders to reconcile differences with the country’s Roman Catholic establishment.

Pope Francis arrives on Thursday — making the first papal visit to East Asia in a quarter of a century — and will remain in South Korea for four days, during which he intends to beatify 124 Korean Catholics killed by dynastic leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries and also celebrate Asian Youth Day, a massive convention for the continent’s young Catholics.

There had been hopes that the Pope would be able to preach unity on the Korean peninsula, however these fell flat after authorities in Pyongyang declined his request to visit North Korea. The Associated Press reports that he will nevertheless issue a “message of peace and reconciliation for all Koreans.”

TIME North Korea

The North Koreans Are Unhappy With the U.N.’s Report on Human Rights

A Portrait of North Korea
The Mass Games being performed in Pyongyang. Jonas Gratzer—LightRocket via Getty Images

So they're penning their own

North Korea plans to publish a report on the state of human rights in the country, nearly six months after a U.N. commission released a scathing document on conditions in the reclusive state.

“A report on human rights is to be published in the DPRK (North Korea) by the country’s Association for Human Rights Studies in the near future,” said the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

The aim is to debunk the U.N.’s report, which the North previously said was orchestrated by the U.S. to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

The new report, the KCNA says, “will show the true picture of the people of the DPRK dynamically advancing toward a brighter and rosy future while enjoying a free and happy life under the socialist system centered on the popular masses.”

The findings documented in the U.N.’s 372-page probe are anything but “rosy,” however. The regime is accused of crimes against humanity and the chair of the commission said they were “strikingly similar” to crimes committed by Nazi Germany in World War II.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the U.N. study said.

The release date of North Korea’s report has not been disclosed.

TIME North Korea

This Amazing Time-Lapse Video Shows Life Inside Pyongyang

Video producers JT Singh and Rob Whitworth were given permission to film in North Korea's capital if they avoided "construction sites, undeveloped locations or military personnel"

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To much of the outside world, North Korea is a mystery. Little information about North Koreans’ daily lives makes it out of the country, partially because of its citizens disconnectedness and stringent restrictions on foreign visitors to the country. Westerners are accustomed to a gloomy narrative about the country, and famine, electricity shortages, North Korea’s draconian legal system and scarcity of modern luxuries loom large in outsiders’ imaginations.

But video producers JT Singh and Rob Whitworth show North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang in a cheerier light. In a state-sponsored visit, the pair created extensive footage of the city to create a time-lapse video of its people and sights. The two were escorted everywhere they went and were “not allowed to shoot any construction sites, undeveloped locations or military personnel.”

Their footage is detailed and intimate, but the obvious restrictions the pair had in creating the video make for a revealing and strange look at the enigmatic capital.

TIME photography

11 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From beach-goers to North Korean dance parties, here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

TIME North Korea

2 Americans Detained in North Korea Seek U.S. Help

(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — Two American tourists charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea said Friday they expect to be tried soon and pleaded for help from the U.S. government to secure their release from what they say could be long prison terms.

In their first appearance since being detained more than three months ago, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle told a local AP Television News crew that they were in good health and were being treated well. They also said they were allowed to take daily walks. The brief meeting was conducted under the condition that the specific location not be disclosed.

Fowle said he fears his situation will get much worse once he goes on trial.

“The horizon for me is pretty dark,” he said. “I don’t know what the worst-case scenario would be, but I need help to extricate myself from this situation. I ask the government for help in that regards.”

It was not clear whether they were speaking on their own initiative, or if their comments were coerced. The TV crew was permitted to ask them questions.

North Korea says the two committed hostile acts which violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing to bring them before a court, but has not yet specified what they did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. The date of the trial has not been announced.

Ri Tong II, a North Korean diplomat, declined to answer questions about the Americans at a news conference Friday at the United Nations. But when pressed in a follow-up question he said their cases were “legal issues” and they had “violated our law.”

Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29. He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin, but a spokesman for Fowle’s family said the 56-year-old from Miamisburg, Ohio, was not on a mission for his church. Fowle works in a city streets department. He has a wife and three children, ages 9, 10, and 12.

“The window is closing on that process. It will be coming relatively soon, maybe within a month,” Fowle said of his trial. “I’m anxious to get home, I’m sure all of us are.”

Fowle also produced a letter he said he had written summarizing his experience in North Korea.

Less is known about Miller, or about what specific crime he allegedly committed.

North Korea’s state-run media have said the 24-year-old entered the country April 10 with a tourist visa, but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. A large number of Western tourists visited Pyongyang in April to run in the annual Pyongyang Marathon or attend related events. Miller came at that time, but tour organizers say he was not planning to join the marathon.

“I expect soon I will be going to trial for my crime and be sent to prison,” Miller said. “I have been requesting help from the American government, but have received no reply.”

North Korea has also been holding another American, Kenneth Bae, since November 2012.

Bae, a Korean-American missionary who turned 46 on Friday, told a Japan-based pro-North Korean news organization earlier this week that he felt “abandoned” by the U.S. government. He is serving a sentence of 15 years of hard labor for what North Korea has claimed were hostile acts against the state. However, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday the agency is in regular contact with Bae’s family.

Last summer, authorities moved Bae from a work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss. He was sent back to the work camp earlier this year, only to be taken again to a hospital less than two months later. His family says he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.

Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said in a statement Thursday it was the first word the family has had of Bae since April.

“After months of silence, it is devastating to hear Kenneth talk about ‘feeling abandoned by the United States government,'” she said. “Although we acknowledge and appreciate all the efforts the U.S. State Department has been making behind the scenes to secure Kenneth’s release, the fact remains that after almost two years, Kenneth still remains imprisoned in North Korea.”

North Korea has in the past waited for senior U.S. officials to come to the country to secure the release of some American detainees. Both Fowle and Miller suggested that intervention from the highest levels in Washington — possibly a visit by a former president — might be needed to gain their release.

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other U.S. detainees but without success.

Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy in Pyongyang. Instead, the Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for U.S. consular affairs there.

Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller’s detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. But despite its efforts to bring in more visitors — mostly from neighboring China — it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

In March, North Korea deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity in the country after he apologized and requested forgiveness.

___

Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel at the United Nations contributed to this report.

TIME North Korea

Activists Send Choco Pies Floating Into North Korea

North Korean defectors and South Korean activists prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies during a rally against the North's recent threat at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea on July 30, 2014.
North Korean defectors and South Korean activists prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies, at the Imjingak Pavilion in the South Korean town of Paju, near the border village of Panmunjom that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, on July 30, 2014 Ahn Young-joon—AP

"We will continue to send Choco Pie by balloons"

A year after North Korea cracked down on Choco Pies — marshmallow-filled chocolate cakes originating in South Korea — activists in South Korea sent thousands of the beloved confections over the border via helium balloons, Agence France-Presse reports.

About 200 activists released 50 balloons carrying hundreds of pounds of snacks, including 10,000 Choco Pies.

North Koreans working in South Korean factories in a joint industrial zone received the confections as perks, but their rarity in the North boosted their value and they soon became a sought after commodity. By 2010, according to South Korean media, more than 2 million were traded on the black market every month (though it’s unclear how exactly that figure was determined).

Last May, authorities in Pyongyang ordered the factories to stop handing out Choco Pies.

But on Wednesday, activists — who regularly send leaflets and other items across the border on balloons — said they will continue to deliver the pies across the border.

“We will continue to send Choco Pie by balloons because it is still one of the most popular foodstuffs, especially among hungry North Koreans,” Choo Sun-hee, one of the organizers, told AFP.

[AFP]

TIME North Korea

North Korea Denies Selling Missiles to Hamas

SKOREA-NKOREA-MILITARY-MISSILE
Visitors walk past replicas of a North Korean Scud-B missile, right, and South Korean Hawk surface-to-air missiles, left, at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul on March 3, 2014 Jung Yeon-Je—AFP/Getty Images

Earlier report by British newspaper claimed a secret weapons deal was in the works

On Dec. 12, 2009, a Georgia-registered cargo plane made an emergency landing in Bangkok. The manifest said it was carrying drilling equipment, but working on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Thai authorities decided to check. Inside the hold, they found some 35 tons of North Korean–made weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers and grenades. Officials said the plane was likely bound for Iran, and its cargo to Hamas and Hizballah.

North Korea’s international reputation has become so tied to Kim Jong Un memes that it is easy to lose sight of the country’s real-life role in the global arms trade. Starved for foreign currency, North Korea has a long history of manufacturing and selling weapons, including, according to U.S. officials, deals with Syria and Iran. Earlier this month, a U.S. judge found North Korea and Iran liable for missile attacks by Hizballah in 2006. On July 28, the U.N. imposed sanctions on the North Korean company that operated a ship carrying undeclared Cuban weapons that was seized by Panama authorities last year.

Now a British newspaper says North Korea is negotiating a secret deal to sell missiles to Hamas. On July 26, the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin published a report claiming that Hamas paid the Hermit Kingdom “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for missiles and communication equipment in a deal brokered by a Lebanon-based security company. The story was based on information from an unnamed Western security official who reportedly told the London-based paper that “Pyongyang already has close ties with a number of militant Islamist groups in the Middle East.”

The report has not been independently confirmed; however, it would, theoretically, make sense for both parties. Thanks to U.N. sanctions, the market for North Korean weapons is shrinking, says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. “The incentives are there to sell arms to earn hard currency,” he says, and amid the ongoing conflict with Israel, “Hamas has an incentive to buy.” But there are still a lot questions: If the report is true, when, where and how would the deal take place?

For its part, North Korea denied any involvement — and did so, of course, with exactly the kind of verbose bluster that fuels the North Korea meme machine. “This is utterly baseless sophism and sheer fiction let loose by the U.S. to isolate the DPRK internationally,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to the state-backed Korean Central News Agency.

The news agency went on to berate Washington for its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Lurking behind this propaganda is a sinister intention of the U.S. to justify its criminal acts of backing Israel driven into a tight corner by its recent unethical killings in the Gaza Strip.” It is the U.S., it said, not Pyongyang, that is the “kingdom of terrorism and chief culprit of international terrorism.”

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